The Scientist In The Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl - Read Online
The Scientist In The Crib
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This exciting book by three pioneers in the new field of cognitive science discusses important discoveries about how much babies and young children know and learn, and how much parents naturally teach them.It argues that evolution designed us both to teach and learn, and that the drive to learn is our most important instinct. It also reveals as fascinating insights about our adult capacities and how even young children -- as well as adults -- use some of the same methods that allow scientists to learn so much about the world. Filled with surprise at every turn, this vivid, lucid, and often funny book gives us a new view of the inner life of children and the mysteries of the mind.

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ISBN: 9780061846915
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The Scientist in the Crib

What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind

Alison Gopnik, Ph.D.

Andrew N. Meltzoff, Ph.D.

Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D.

For all our children

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie Thy Soul’s immensity;

Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep

Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,

That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,

Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—

Mighty prophet! Seer blest!

On whom those truths do rest,

Which we are toiling all our lives to find…

Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might

Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height…

Wordsworth Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

Contents

Epigraph

Preface and Acknowledgments

Chapter One: Ancient Questions and a Young Science

The Ancient Questions

Baby 0.0

The Other Socratic Method

The Great Chain of Knowing

Piaget and Vygotsky

The New View: The Computational Baby

Chapter Two: What Children Learn About People

What Newborns Know

The Really Eternal Triangle

Peace and Conflict Studies

Changing Your Point of View

The Conversational Attic

Learning About About

The Three-Year-Old Opera: Love and Deception

Knowing You Didn't Know: Education and Memory

How Do They Do It?

Mind-Blindness

Becoming a Psychologist

When Little Brother Is Watching

Chapter Three: What Children Learn About Things

What Newborns Know

The Irresistible Allure of Stripes

The Importance of Movement

Seeing the World Through 3-D Glasses

The Tree in the Quad and the Keys in the Washcloth

Making Things Happen

Kinds of Things

How Do They Do It?

World-Blindness

The Explanatory Drive

Grown-ups as Teachers

Chapter Four: What Children Learn About Language

The Sound Code

Making Meanings

The Grammar We Don't Learn in School

What Newborns Know

Taking Care of the Sounds: Becoming a Language-Specific Listener

The Tower of Babble

The First Words

Putting It Together

How Do They Do It?

Word-Blindness: Dyslexia and Dysphasia

Learning Sounds

Learning How to Mean

Motherese

Chapter Five: What Scientists Have Learned About Children's Minds

Evolution's Programs

The Star Trek Archaeologists

Foundations

Learning

The Developmental View: Sailing in Ulysses' Boat

Big Babies

The Scientist as Child: The Theory Theory

Explanation as Orgasm

Other People

Nurture as Nature

The Klingons and the Vulcans

Sailing Together

Chapter Six: What Scientists Have Learned About Children's Brains

The Adult Brain

How Brains Get Built

Wiring the Brain: Talk to Me

Synaptic Pruning: When a Loss Is a Gain

Are There Critical Periods?

The Social Brain

The Brain in the Boat

Chapter Seven: Trailing Clouds of Glory

What Is to Be Done?

The Clouds

Notes

References

Searchable Terms

About the Authors

Praise

Other Books by Alison Gopnik and Andrew N. Meltzoff

Copyright

About the Publisher

PREFACE AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Scientists and cribs? We wrote this book to show that scientists and cribs, and the children in them, belong together. For the last thirty years scientists like us have been looking in cribs—and in playpens and nurseries and preschools. There have been hundreds of rigorous scientific studies that tell us how babies and young children think and learn. These studies have revolutionized our ideas about babies and young children, and about the nature of the human mind and brain. They have also helped answer profound and ancient philosophical questions. We can learn as much by looking in the crib and the nursery as by looking in the petri dish or the telescope. In some ways we learn more—we learn what it means to be human.

In this book we tell the story of the new science of children’s minds. This story should be important to everyone who is interested in the mind and the brain. It’s a central part of the new discipline called cognitive science. Cognitive science has united psychology, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, and neuroscience. New scientific insights often come from unexpected and even humble places, and some of the most important insights in cognitive science have come from the crib and the nursery. Understanding children has led us to understand ourselves in a new way.

Scientists and children belong together in another way. The new research shows that babies and young children know and learn more about the world than we could ever have imagined. They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments. Scientists and children belong together because they are the best learners in the universe. And that means that ordinary adults also have more powerful learning abilities than we might have thought. Grown-ups, after all, are all ex-children and potential scientists.

We hope this book will demonstrate that scientists and children belong together in still other ways. Parents are deeply, even passionately interested in children, or at least in their children. But parents find that their interest in children is treated differently from their interest in science. Books about science assume that their readers are serious, knowledgeable, intelligent, sophisticated adults who simply want to know about the things they care about. But books about babies and children are almost all books of advice—how-to books. It’s as if the only place you could read about evolution was in dog-breeding manuals, not in Stephen Jay Gould; as if, lacking Stephen Hawking’s insights, the layman’s knowledge of the cosmos was reduced to How to find the constellations. How-to books can be enormously useful, but they shouldn’t be the only place parents can learn about something they care about as much as they care about children.

We hope this book will help fill that gap. The science of babies’ minds should hold a special fascination for people who live with babies and young children every day. The picture of children that emerges is at once surprisingly familiar and surprisingly unfamiliar. Parents who read this book should find themselves feeling both the shock of recognition and the shock of the new.

There is yet another reason that scientists and children belong together. Everyone should be interested in understanding children because the future of the world, quite literally, depends on them. Recently there has been more and more recognition of that fact. But getting public policies about children right depends on getting the science right. The political sound bites and op-ed-page pieces are inevitably simplified. If citizens and voters are going to make the right political decisions about children, they need to understand what science tells us (and what it doesn’t).

In writing this book we’ve faced the usual problems of scientists trying to explain their research. Science is elegant and orderly. But it is also messy, noisy, complicated, and invariably embroiled in controversies and debates. We’ve tried to present what we think are the most interesting experiments, conclusions, ideas, and speculations, but we couldn’t possibly reflect the entire field in all its diversity and complexity. We’ve tried to indicate when we are talking about our own views and when we are talking about ideas that are generally accepted in the field, and to indicate the many questions that remain unanswered.

The new science of development, like any science, depends on the cumulative efforts of literally thousands of scientists. It would be impossible to acknowledge them all in the text, and anyway, it would make readers feel as if they were at a party where everyone kept talking about people they didn’t know. We have tried at least partly to remedy this by including detailed and extensive source notes and a bibliography at the end of the book. They are designed to give scientific references for our factual claims and to point to the best and clearest accounts of the central ideas.

Part of the message of this book is that children can do so much because they have the help of people who care about them. This is even more true of authors. This book depends on an entire generation of scientists who showed that babies had minds and that studying those minds was important and valuable. It also depends on the thousands of parents and children who generously and enthusiastically participated in the research.

Our own ideas and research were supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NSF9213959, HD22514, HD18286, HD34565, and DC00520). We have been generously supported by the Department of Psychology, the Institute of Human Development, and the Institute of Cognitive Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and also by the Department of Psychology, the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, and the Center on Human Development and Disability at the University of Washington. We are also grateful to our colleagues and students at both universities.

John Campbell and Danny Povinelli read and commented on drafts of this book, and we are very grateful. We had unusual genetic luck: Adam Gopnik, a generous brother as well as a masterly writer, made especially helpful comments and suggestions, and Julian Meltzoff provided the wisdom of a father as well as a scientist and sympathetic reader. Katinka Matson, our agent, helped make this project a reality. Toni Sciarra, at Morrow, has been unfailingly enthusiastic and helpful, and an exemplary editor. Thanks also go to Keith Moore for years of collaborative work, and to Craig Harris, Calle Fisher, and Erica Stevens for assisting with the research and the process of preparing the final manuscript.

Authors always end by acknowledging their families. But for this book that acknowledgment takes on a special importance. Contemplating childhood is especially satisfying for us because our own childhood experiences were so luminous and so full of parents, brothers, and sisters who cared about us and taught us at the same time. We are deeply grateful to Irwin and Myrna Gopnik, and to Adam, Morgan, Hilary, Blake, and Melissa; to Julian and Judith Meltzoff and Nancy; and to Joe and Susan Kuhl and Delphine, Donna, Benno, and Shirley.

Combining science and children hasn’t been just the project of this book, it has been the most important and most profoundly satisfying project of our lives. Andy and Pat are married and deeply grateful for each other, but Alison has to express the deepest gratitude to her husband, George Lewinski, for his help in that project. This book simply could not have been written without our children, Katherine Meltzoff and Alexei, Nicholas, and Andres Gopnik-Lewinski. It is dedicated to them, and to all the others.

CHAPTER ONE

Ancient Questions and a Young Science

Walk upstairs, open the door gently, and look in the crib. What do you see? Most of us see a picture of innocence and helplessness, a clean slate. But, in fact, what we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe. The tiny fingers and mouth are exploration devices that probe the alien world around them with more precision than any Mars rover. The crumpled ears take a buzz of incomprehensible noise and flawlessly turn it into meaningful language. The wide eyes that sometimes seem to peer into your very soul actually do just that, deciphering your deepest feelings. The downy head surrounds a brain that is forming millions of new connections every day. That, at least, is what thirty years of scientific research have told us.

This book is about that research. What are these deeply familiar yet surprisingly strange creatures we call children really like? Of course, human beings have always wondered, pondered, and even agonized about their children. But most of the time, the questions people ask are practical. Some are immediate, questions about how to get them to eat more or cry less. Some are long-term, questions about how to turn them into the right kind of grown-ups. These are important questions, crucial for the survival of any civilization (not to mention any parent), but we won’t have very much to say about them. This book won’t tell you how to make babies easier or smarter or nicer, or how to get them to go to sleep or to Harvard. There are lots of books that do that, or anyway say they do, right between the cooking and house-repairs sections in your local bookstore. Our questions are both harder and easier than the practical questions. We want to understand children, not renovate them.

While the purported answers to the practical questions fill volumes, all of us who have lived with babies and young children, or even just looked at them, have found ourselves asking deeper questions. We decided to become developmental psychologists and study children because there aren’t any Martians. These brilliant beings with the little bodies and big heads are the closest we can get to a truly alien intelligence (even if we may occasionally suspect that they are bent on making us their slaves). Babies are fascinating, mysterious, and just plain weird. Watch awhile. A three-month-old catches sight of the stripes on a shopping bag and follows it carefully as her father carries it around the room, staring with intense cross-eyed concentration. A one-year-old visiting the zoo points at the elephant and says triumphantly and with great certainty, Doggie! A terrible two-year-old turns toward the expressly forbidden switch of the computer and slowly, deliberately, watching his mother every moment, erases the day’s work. As we change diapers and wipe noses, all of us, no matter how preoccupied, find ourselves exclaiming, "What’s going on in that little head of hers? Where on earth did he get that from?"

Developmental psychologists have had the luxury of asking those questions systematically and even getting answers to them. We’re actually starting to understand what’s going on in that little head of hers and where on earth he got that from.

Studying babies is full of fascination in its own right. But developmental research also helps answer a more general, deep, and ancient question, not just about babies but about us. We human beings, no more than a few pounds of protein and water, have come to understand the origins of the universe, the nature of life, and even a few things about ourselves. No other animal, and not even the most sophisticated computer, knows as much. And yet every one of us started out as the helpless creature in the crib. Only a few tiny flickers of information from the outside world reach that creature—a few photons hitting its retinas, some sound waves vibrating at its eardrums—and yet we end up knowing how the world works. How do we do it? How did we get here from there?

The new research about babies holds answers to those questions, too. It turns out that the capacities that allow us to learn about the world and ourselves have their origins in infancy. We are born with the ability to discover the secrets of the universe and of our own minds, and with the drive to explore and experiment until we do. Science isn’t just the specialized province of a chilly elite; instead, it’s continuous with the kind of learning every one of us does when we’re very small.

Trying to understand human nature is part of human nature. Developmental scientists are themselves engaged in the same enterprise and use the same cognitive tools as the babies they study. The scientist peering into the crib, looking for answers to some of the deepest questions about how minds and the world and language work, sees the scientist peering out of the crib, who, it turns out, is doing much the same thing. No wonder they both smile.

The Ancient Questions

How can we know so much when our senses are so limited? This problem—the problem of knowledge—is one of the oldest and most profound problems of philosophy. The branch of philosophy called epistemology is devoted to it. Three versions of the problem are especially important and puzzling to grown-ups and children alike. We’ll call them the Other Minds problem, the External World problem, and the Language problem. The new developmental psychology helps answer all three.

Take a perfectly ordinary event. Every Sunday night, we sit around the dinner table. We serve up healthy leek and potato soup (which must be eaten before you get dessert), pass the salt and pepper, butter the bread, push our chairs back from the big wooden table. We laugh, fight, and tease one another. One of the big brothers invariably makes a rude joke at the expense of the little brother, who is hurt and demands an apology. No experience could be more banal, more domestic, more comfortable and familiar. Except that, actually, we don’t experience any of this at all.

All that really reaches us from the outside world is a play of colors and shapes, light and sound. Take the people around the table. We seem to see husbands and wives and friends and little brothers. But what we really see are bags of skin stuffed into pieces of cloth and draped over chairs. There are small restless black spots that move at the top of the bags of skin, and a hole underneath that irregularly makes noises. The bags move in unpredictable ways, and sometimes one of them will touch us. The holes change shape, and occasionally salty liquid pours from the two spots.

This is, of course, a madman’s view of other people, a nightmare. The problem of Other Minds is how we somehow get from this mad view to our ordinary experience of people. Why is it we don’t see skin-bags but husbands and wives and children—people with thought and feelings, beliefs and desires like ours, including wounded pride that demands apologies?

We don’t even really see the things in the room, either. The brown, bounded shape we think of as the table perpetually changes its form as we move around it. The apparently solid three-dimensional spoons and pepper mills are really just flat surface images on our eyes. The feel of the spoon in our hands is quite different from the shape we see. The surface of the table is full of discontinuities: white holes where it is hidden by plates and bowls. The soup changes its form even more radically as it moves from tureen to spoon to mouth until we lose sight of it altogether and only feel the warmth in our throats. We seem to know about a world of objects with properties that are quite independent of us, a world of tables and spoons and healthy soup. But all we experience directly is an endlessly changing chaotic flow of sensations. This is the External World problem.

The problem is perhaps worst of all when we turn to the sounds that come out of the holes in the skin-bags. Sit in a café in a foreign city. Suddenly you’ll realize that the thoughts and jokes and apologies that float so unself-consciously around the dinner table are really a blazingly fast succession of finely modulated noises, each just barely different from the last. Each word is actually nothing but a transitory whisper of a disturbance in the air that lasts for milliseconds until it’s replaced by the next. The most sophisticated computers can barely decode continuous speech spoken by a single person in a calm voice. Yet for us the words are completely transparent: we experience only the ideas of the people who speak them. We can hear a sentence spoken by a little boy with a soul full of excited indignation and a mouth full of soup and turn it effortlessly into a thought. This is the problem of Language.

The sensitive three-year-old little brother at the table can do all these things, too. He experiences his brothers teasing him, not skin-bags moving. He sees tables and spoons and healthy soup, not undifferentiated colors and shapes. And he immediately understands the significance of the rude joke and the apology that are actually no more than the most fleeting vibrations. How can he do it?

Baby 0.0

The modern answer to this question is that babies are a kind of very special computer. They are computers made of neurons, instead of silicon chips, and programmed by evolution, instead of by guys with pocket protectors. They take input from the world, the flickering chaos of sensations, and they (and therefore we) somehow turn it into jokes, apologies, tables, and spoons. Our job as developmental psychologists is to discover what program babies run and, someday, how that program is coded in their brains and how it evolved. If we could do that, we would have solved the ancient philosophical problems of knowledge in a scientific way.

Thinking of babies’ minds as computers made of neurons and programmed by evolution makes us see babies differently, but it also makes us see computers and neurons and evolution differently. The baby computers must be much more powerful than even the most impressive product of Silicon Valley. Bill Gates’s little daughter has already solved problems that Bill, with all his billions, is still unsuccessfully trying to crack. The new developmental research tells us that Baby 0.0 must have some pretty special features.

First, it must already have a great deal of knowledge about the world built into its original program. The experiments we will describe show that even newborns already know a great deal about people and objects and language. But more significant, babies and children have powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to spontaneously revise, reshape, and restructure their knowledge. This is, notoriously, the great weakness of existing computers. They are terrific at solving well-defined problems, they are not so hot at learning, and they are really awful at spontaneously changing how they learn. Finally, the babies have the universe’s best system of tech support: mothers. Grown-ups are themselves designed to behave in ways that will allow babies to learn. This support plays such a powerful role in the babies’ development, in fact, that it may make sense to think of it as part of the system itself. The human baby’s computational system is really a network, held together by language and love, instead of by optic fiber.

Studying babies also makes us think about the brain in a new way. People often seem to split the human mind into two parts: a natural neurologically determined part that is shaped by evolution and a cultural socially determined part that is shaped by learning. Studying babies makes us realize how deeply misguided these oppositions are. They aren’t just misguided in the obvious sense that there is an interaction between nature and nurture or that there is a little of both. They are misguided in a much deeper sense. Everything about our minds is the result of what happens in our brains, from the most automatic mechanisms that govern our breathing to the most refined, culturally elaborated details of wedding etiquette and existential angst. That means, though, that the brain must be profoundly flexible, sensitive, and plastic, and be deeply influenced by events in the outside world. A handful of genes couldn’t predetermine the billions of specific neural connections that make up an adult brain. And, as we’ll see, the more we learn about the brain, the more flexible, sensitive, and plastic it seems. This is partly because we have only very recently started analyzing live brains instead of dissecting dead ones; living things generally look more active than dead things.

Just as everything about our minds is caused by our brains, everything about our brains is ultimately caused by our evolutionary history. That means, though, that evolution can select learning strategies and cultural abilities just as it selects reflexes and instincts. For human beings, nurture is our nature. The capacity for culture is part of our biology, and the drive to learn is our most important and central instinct. The new developmental research suggests that our unique evolutionary trick, our central adaptation, our greatest weapon in the struggle for survival, is precisely our dazzling ability to learn when we are babies and to teach when we are grown-ups.

In fact, we’ve proposed a more specific version of this general evolutionary picture. If you look at a wide range of animal species, a few evolutionary characteristics seem to go together. Animals with a relatively large cortex, behavioral flexibility, and cognitive complexity (what we anthropomorphically think of as smart animals, although the cockroaches might give us an argument) also tend to share other traits. These include eating a wide variety of foods, having sex lots of different ways, being polygamous, living in lots of different places, and—most important for our purposes—having a long period of immaturity. Passing quickly over polygamy, we human beings have all these traits in spades (particularly in Berkeley).

That long period of immaturity, childhood, is a puzzle. Why leave the young so helpless for so long, and why require the adults to invest so much time and energy in protecting them? One idea raised by the eminent psychologist and educator Jerome Bruner is that that period of protected immaturity allows children to learn about their specific physical environment (we humans can survive in more different environments, including outer space, than any other creature). Even more significant, it allows children to learn about their specific social environment (we organize ourselves into more different kinds of social groups than any other creature). Other species survive by having elaborately developed instincts that are exquisitely adapted to their particular ecological niche. We survive by being able to learn how to behave in almost any ecological niche, and by being able to construct our own niches.

If this is our evolutionary strategy, it makes sense to have babies who are brilliantly intelligent learners and grown-ups who are deeply devoted to helping them learn. That may be why we also have babies who are utterly helpless and grown-ups who are devoted to keeping them alive. The advantage of learning is that it allows you to find out about your particular environment. The disadvantage is that until you do find out, you don’t know what to do; you’re helpless. We may have two evolutionary gifts: great abilities to learn about the world around us and a long protected period in which to deploy those abilities.

We’ve even argued that our otherwise mysterious adult ability to do science may be a kind of holdover from our infant